Station Eleven, the fourth novel by the Canadian-born, New York-based writer Emily St. John Mandel, is a prime example of non-genre science fiction — a novel written by an author not normally identified with science fiction, published by a mainstream rather than a genre imprint, but whose subject matter is unquestionably science fiction. Like others of its kind, it has received recognition from both mainstream and genre awards: It was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, but also won this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award and is a finalist for the Sunburst Award and the British Fantasy Award (the latter inexplicably in the horror category).
Station Eleven is a rare bird: a post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t really about the apocalypse. While the novel is set, at least in part, during and after a flu pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of the human population, the matter of survival and rebuilding seems incidental to the novel’s concerns. Station Eleven is mainstream in the sense that it is a novel of character, and is at its best when exploring its characters and their relationships with one another.
The book opens on the night the flu pandemic hits Toronto, when famous Hollywood actor Arthur Leander collapses and dies of a heart attack during a stage production of King Lear. This is the novel’s nexus: Everything and everyone in the story is in some way connected to this moment. They include Jeevan Chaudhary, the paramedic who attends to Arthur when he collapses onstage; Kristen Raymonde, a young girl also cast in the play; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s friend, who has to break the news of Arthur’s death to his ex-wives; and Miranda, his first wife, whose secret life’s work is a privately printed comic book called Station Eleven — a copy of which Arthur gives to young Kristen the night he dies.
Though the narrative jumps backward and forward in time, before, during and after the apocalypse, the main thread of the story takes place twenty years after the pandemic. Kristen, now an adult, is part of a travelling Symphony that moves among the “archipelago of small towns” that civilization has been reduced to, performing music and Shakespeare for the surviving population, and escaping a cult whose leader also has a connection to Arthur. Connections are a major theme of Station Eleven: Characters encounter one another over and over again (Jeevan, for example, had crossed paths with Arthur before in other guises — as paparazzo and as interviewer), and find themselves connected to one another in frankly uncanny ways.
The Symphony’s slogan, cribbed from a Star Trek: Voyager episode, is “Because survival is insufficient” — and for better or worse, survival in Station Eleven isn’t sufficient, it’s irrelevant. Mandel is less interested in the business of rebuilding what was lost, in starting over, than she is in remembering it — Station Eleven indulges in the cliché of having its characters repeatedly reminiscence about how much better things were before they all went to hell — and in reconnecting with it. This is a novel that is primarily about memory that teeters on the edge of, but does not quite tip into, nostalgia. The end result is a narrative that is less like Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique (another novel featuring performers travelling through a wasteland) than you might expect; it’s more like what you might get if Robertson Davies wrote The Stand.
In such a novel, worldbuilding is incidental to the author’s purpose. In a reversal of the usual trend in genre works, Station Eleven’s post-apocalyptic landscape is less convincing than the characters who populate it. For one thing, twenty years is longer than you think: more than enough time to rebuild to at least some extent, to restart local economies, rather than scavenge supplies from before the fall. But it’s not long enough for plate tectonics to reconcile this point of geography: “Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, traveling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine.” (Kincardine is on the 44th parallel.)
On its own terms, Station Eleven works, and works well. Breaking or ignoring genre protocols can be refreshing: Not every post-apocalyptic novel needs to sing from the same hymnal. All the same, dedicated readers of the subgenre might not know what to make of this one. In the final analysis, Station Eleven’s good bits (and there are many) aren’t that science fictional and the science fictional bits aren’t that good.